Joe Rizzo has been the president of Triumvirate Theatre since the organization was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1998, so he knows a thing or two about what days and times of the year draw the biggest crowds in this area.
Thursday at 7 p.m. is not one of those times. That’s when Bernie and the Believers will be putting on a concert at Triumvirate North.
Rizzo hopes the powerful story behind the band is enough to overcome the difficulty of getting a crowd out on a Thursday night during a spring packed with entertainment options.
“This is a very special thing,” Rizzo said. “All somebody has to do is get on and watch the NPR Tiny Desk concert to want to come to this thing.
“It’s very moving and it’s kind of Alaskan in the way we help each other out. On top of being a great story, these guys are amazing musicians.”
Rizzo was watching the National Public Radio Tiny Desk concert shortly after it was released Nov. 13, 2018. After playing two songs, singer/songwriter Essence Goldman told the band’s story.
Goldman, a sixth-generation San Franciscan, came back from a tour to a divorce. The mother of two children, she needed extra income and placed an ad on Craigslist offering voice lessons in January 2016.
One of the first to respond was Bernie Dalton, a 46-year-old who enjoyed surfing and made a living cleaning pools. Dalton showed his dedication by driving 90 minutes each way for the lessons. After about two months, though, his voice disappeared.
“I told him go home and drink a lot of water,” Goldman said during the Tiny Desk concert. “Eat your vegetables and take care of yourself.”
Even without a voice, Dalton kept taking lessons. The two worked on Dalton’s songs while growing closer and closer. Bernie’s daughter, Nicole, was 14 at the time, and Goldman was impressed with their relationship.
“His relationship with Nicole reminded me of my relationship with my dad,” Goldman said during the Tiny Desk concert. “My father has always been the person who supported me the most with my music in my life until he died of pancreatic cancer.”
After a year of having no voice, and with more troubling symptoms surfacing like trouble swallowing and drooling, Dalton went to a neurologist and was diagnosed with bulbar-onset ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The progressive neurological disorder causes motor neurons to gradually degenerate and eventually die. Dalton was given one to three years to live.
“I said, ‘Bernie, what do you want to do with the time you have left on the planet?” Goldman said during the concert. “He said, ‘I want to make a record.’
“But he didn’t say it. He wrote it on a dry erase board.”
Goldman continued: “I said, ‘Bernie, how are you going to make a record when you can’t speak and you can’t sing? And you can’t play guitar.’ Because by then, his hands were getting weak.
“And he wrote on a pad of paper, ‘I want you to be my voice.’ And I didn’t know what to say.”
Dalton persisted, sending handwritten lyrics in the mail even though he had never recorded an album before. Soon, with Dalton’s help, Goldman was putting those words to music and starting a GoFundMe campaign to provide money to make the album.
Bernie and the Believers began recording in June 2017 and “Connection” was released in February 2018.
“I’m watching this and I just start crying,” said Rizzo, also a teacher at Nikiski High School, of the Tiny Desk concert. “Oh my gosh, I have to help this guy.
“He’s got this 16-year-old daughter (now 17). I’ve been a teacher for 25 years, and having five daughters myself, I thought, ‘How is this kid going to make it in the world?’ Her dad is not going to be around much longer.”
Rizzo contacted Goldman and she was also interested in finding a way to help Nicole.
“I was so incredibly moved by him reaching out,” Goldman said.
Rizzo got an Alaska State Council on the Arts grant to bring the band north for a tour. Grants from the council don’t happen overnight, which explains why Rizzo had to cram this concert into a busy spring entertainment season.
Grants from the council also can’t be used for fundraising, so any proceeds from the concert go into Triumvirate’s general fund, then Nicole will be awarded with one of the many scholarships Triumvirate gives out.
“I tend to think about my blessings,” Rizzo said. “My kids had a mom and dad that love them at home. We’ve been able to help all those guys get to college and a lot of kids don’t have that.
“Triumvirate often gives scholarships to those kids that don’t have those opportunities.”
Nicole has performed with the band in the past, but will not be making the trip to Alaska. Dalton has been unresponsive and is in what Goldman called a “drugged dream state” due to morphine.
Goldman said Dalton’s personality always was evident even when he could only communicate by blinking or using an eye gaze device. For him to be totally unresponsive now is very tough on those who are close to him.
“She’s grieving and doing her best to find a new normal,” Goldman said of Nicole. “She’s trying to keep her life as normal as possible and there’s nothing normal about this.”
Goldman said Dalton’s deteriorating state is tough for her and the band, but they are pressing on to share Bernie’s music, message, courage and creativity.
“It’s never too late to follow your dream, no matter how dire the circumstances,” Goldman said. “Even if you are dying, you can start something you’ve never done before.
“He wrote and recorded an album at the same time he was diagnosed with ALS. I think that’s courageous and profound on so many levels. We all have a story to tell as creative people and it’s never, ever, too late to tell that story and follow your passion in life. Life is short, do it now.”
The concert will include songs from “Connection,” as well as Goldman’s personal songs and some covers. Dalton’s songs are about his daughter, and also about his views on the world.
“It’s music for the sake of music, not just because he’s a sick guy,” Goldman said. “He’s really a phenomenal songwriter and rocker.
“We’re going to have fun at these shows.”
Goldman said there are still three GoFundMe campaigns for those wanting to help — Bernie’s Song to keep his music alive, Keep Bernie’s Dream Alive for tour support and Send Bernie Home for medical care. The band also seeks to raise awareness of ALS, in search of a cure or at least better treatment options.
The band will also include Daniel Derkman on cello, drums and banjo, Danny Uzilevsky on bass and guitar, and Kevin Glaz on guitar.
Tickets to Thursday’s 7 p.m. show at Triumvirate North are $25 for general admission and $35 for balcony and are available at ticketleap.com. As part of the grant, the band also will play at Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer on Friday. The Alaska tour also includes Mat-Su Resort on Wednesday and Williwaw Social in Anchorage on Saturday.